By Fiona Grahame
William Bowen had an extensive naval career having first joined the Royal Navy in 1899.
William was born in Walwyn’s Castle, Pembrokeshire, Wales in 1878. The family were farm labourers. William also worked as a labourer joining the Royal Navy in 1899.
In 1908 he married Alice Howells.
They had 3 children: Ruby born in 1909, Winifred born in 1912 and William born in May 1917 after his father’s death.
William was serving on HMS Amphion at the outbreak of war. There were 2 William Bowens serving on the vessel – one as Chief Stoker and one as Stoker Petty Officer. On August 5th 1914 Amphion sunk a German mine layer ‘Konigin Luise’. On her return to port the next morning August 6th she struck one of the mines laid by the Konigin Luise. 169 men were killed: 151 crew and 18 prisoners from the Konigin Luise, including Chief Stoker William Bowen. Stoker Petty Officer Bowen survived. This was the first Royal Navy warship to be lost in WW1.
On the 16th of November 1915 William was promoted to Chief Stoker.
What did a stoker do?
Stokers as you would expect worked in the engine room and when steamships powered across the oceans they would be ‘stoking’ the fires with coal. By the First World War the Royal Navy’s ships were becoming increasingly technical. The engine room was crucial to the battle readiness of the vessels.
“without stokers no ship could leave harbour let alone engage the enemy. Every item of machinery and equipment on board a ship relied on the steam produced by stokers.” Stokers the Lowest of the Low? Tony Chamberlain
If you look at any crew list of the time you will soon see how many men were engaged in keeping the ship going in the engine room.
The ‘trades’ of the Royal Navy had their own ranking structure a testament to not just the experience of the men who kept the engines going but their skill.
William joined the crew of HMS Pheasant on 20th November 1916. On the 1st of March 1917 whilst out on regular patrol Pheasant struck a mine off Rora Head, Orkney. There were no survivors. Discovering the Last Resting Place of HMS Pheasant (1917)
Chief Stoker William Bowen was 38 when he was killed. I am very grateful to his grandson for allowing me to use his picture and providing me with additional information about William Bowen.
I will be giving a talk about the men of HMS Pheasant in the Orkney Library and Archives, Kirkwall on Saturday 23rd of November at 2.30pm.
The exhibition HMS Pheasant 1917 put together by Martin Laird and myself will open at the Northlight Gallery, Stromness on Saturday 30th of November. This event is part of Fair Saturday, a response to the consumerism of Black Friday. Our charity of choice will again be Orkney Rape and Sexual Assault Service. The exhibition is free to enter. Please come along and find out about the lives of the men of HMS Pheasant.
Our crowdfunder finishes on Monday if you would like to contribute here is the link: HMS Pheasant 1917
Here is a link to the Facebook page: HMS Pheasant 1917
And here is Martin Laird and myself explaining what it is about and why we feel it is important.